Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16

Feel the Fear
Looking for a great topic for discussion at your Passover Seder? Consider a story you either learned in Hebrew school or we heard at a Passover Seder growing up. The people were told to put blood from the Passover offering (Pascal Lamb) on their doorposts so that their homes would be passed over and spared from the plague of the first born.
And I shall pass through Egypt on this night, and I shall strike every firstborn in the land of Egypt…(12:12)
If G-d, Himself carried out this plague, why did they need to put blood on their doorposts?
The blood will be a sign for you upon the houses where you are; and I will see the blood and I will skip over you…(12:13)
Question: Why does the All-Knowing G-d need a sign so that He will know which homes to pass over? Is G-d a mail carrier who has to look at an address to know which parcel goes to whom? He knows everything; why did He need the visual aid of blood on the doorposts?
Answer: The blood was not for G-d, it was for the Jews themselves. The Passover offering is a lamb, which was one of the Egyptian gods. When hundreds of thousands of powerless slaves slaughter the god of their powerful captors, it testifies to their trust in G-d.
One of the things you were not taught in Hebrew school was that a number of commentaries hold that the sign was on the inside of the doorpost, not outside. Its purpose was not for G-d; it was for the Jews to look at and contemplate their commitment and the impact it would have on their lives, their families, and the entire nation.
The 19th century classic HaKsav v’HaKabalah, by Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, explains that, according to the Talmud, the Jewish people in Egypt had been there so long and that they had been steeped in idolatry. There is no way G-d could redeem them if they were praying to foreign gods. By commanding the Israelites to slaughter the god of the Egyptians, a god the Jews had believed in, He was eradicating their misplaced trust and giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their allegiance. Rav Mecklenburg understands this idea as a beacon for understanding the relationship between love and fear.
When one is to show his unequivocal love for someone, he does not allow fear to prevent him from fulfilling the wishes of that person, even if danger is involved…This sign was a wondrous mark of their full repentance and devotion to G-d, and their absolute rejection of idolatry.
Fear is a short word but has the ability to touch every aspect of our lives. Some people cannot get into a committed relationship because of fear. For others, it means not auditioning for the school play “because I was scared of what everyone would think of me.” Fear prevents some people from applying for certain jobs for which they are qualified or even attempting to place their names in the running for a higher-level position in the company because of how certain people might perceive it. (“She’s applying for this job?”)
These are just a few of the many ways in which fear can manifest itself in one’s life. As long as fear is a person’s main motivator, (s)he will not be able to lead the life (s)he knows (s)he can have. This is one of the great tragedies of life because we will never get the love, relationships, or career fulfillment we want because fear will “force” a person to do something, even if it means that (s)he will be frustrated at the action (s)he chose to make.
Years of observation have shown me how this manifests itself uniquely with Jews. A person is afraid to talk to a rabbi because of how it will be perceived by others. I was recently told by a college student, who wanted to engage, that it looked “weird” to meet with a rabbi. A woman was transferred by her company to work their Israel office; while living in Israel, she found meaning in lighting Shabbos candles and the serenity it brought her. She stopped this meaningful activity because she was afraid that her roommates might deem her “religious.” Fear has deprived her of the magical feeling of completion she testified to having every Friday night.
Fear becomes an evil and corroding thread whose fabric makes for a sad and frustrated existence. In order to prevent the fear from controlling him, a person must recognize it; then the person must be so committed to something that the commitment trumps the fear. A mother will put herself in danger for her child. That means that the love she has for her child is a more powerful motivator than her fear of the situation. Her love caused her to have a resolve that allowed her to overcome her fear.
G-d is a concept that frightens people. There are many reasons for this, one of the most common of which is that people are afraid that if they openly admit to themselves that G-d exists, He might have some expectation of them. They imagine that belief in G-d means putting oneself in a prison because it prevents them from obtaining their desires and ambitions. Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), author of Brave New World, wrote in Confessions of an Atheist:
I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently, I assumed that it had none and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of …liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.
Our Jewish ancestors had a different motivation. The process of becoming a nation began with the Jews choosing G-d. If they had not done so, there might never have been a Jewish nation. They were able to overcome the fear of their captors and thusly merited to be redeemed. They did not view a relationship with G-d as being put in prison; they had no motive to exist in a world without meaning. They realized they were witness to something never before occurring in history. A weak and persecuted people were rescued by a loving G-d, who had the power to do so. Abraham chose G-d and was not afraid of the consequences; therefore, G-d chose Abraham and made him the paradigm for all Jews. Abraham’s decedents in Egypt followed his course, and they too were chosen by G-d to be a model for all people.
Being a model means overcoming fear as it relates to one’s Judaism and G-d. Are you comfortable talking about a great novel or work of nonfiction, but would be mortified to talk about a Biblical passage that had meaning for you? Are you proud to talk about the playoff game you got tickets to or the adult basketball league you are part of but would feel embarrassed to say that you had a meaningful synagogue experience or attended a Jewish class which was a source of intellectual situation and lead you to reconsider some of your preconceived prejudices about Judaism?
When the Jews put blood on their doorposts, they demonstrated that their trust and commitment to G-d transcended the fear of their Egyptian captors. G-d did not let them down and the fact that we are still around after thousands of years of persecution, programs, and annihilation attempts is strong testimony that He has not and will not let us down now. If Jewish engagement scares you, it is time to reconsider. An unknown author once wrote, “Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the Ark, professionals built the Titanic.” Do something Jewish, and don’t panic.
Good Shabbos